Preparing Silk is attributed to Zhang Xuan (birth and death years unknown), a court painter of renown during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The existing specimen housed by Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a replica of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It was once in the collection of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) but was looted by foreign invaders in 1860 and later bought by the then director of the Asian Division of Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
This painting depicts palace women pounding and pressing white silk. The 12 characters can be roughly divided into four groups in three procedures: pounding, sewing and ironing. What is interesting is that the painting was not intended to show court servants how to work, rather, it was supposed to reveal how boring and tedious women’s life in the court could be.
There had been a tradition of applying a symmetrical composition in paintings of this genre by the time this work came into being. But Zhang Xuan added details to transcend the symmetry, the different heights of the two ladies in the second group from the right and the girl fanning fire in the third group, for instance, so as to avoid monotony brought by absolute symmetry. Such a technique, combined with Zhang’s genius master the category of court lady painting, make his painting outstanding among works of the same genre.